“It’s strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.”The 1940 film The Letter from director William Wyler begins and ends on deceptively still nights illuminated by a full moon. Just a few short weeks connect these two nights, and it’s a time in which a murder occurs, a trial takes place, a husband faces the painful truth about his wife and fate delivers its judgment with a sure, implacable hand.
The film opens at rubber plantation No1, on the outskirts of Singapore. In an idealized scene, natives swing indolently in hammocks while strumming various instruments, but the quiet night is ripped apart by a gunshot. Horrified natives watch as Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) dressed in an elegant lounging gown follows a man down the front steps of her plantation home as she calmly and methodically empties the bullets of a gun into the man’s body as he falls. Just as calmly, Leslie orders the horrified Head Boy (Tetsu Komai) to go and collect her husband, plantation manager, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and tell him to come home.
A few hours later, Robert and lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) gather at the Crosbie plantation house along with a local official, the newly appointed district officer. Leslie is persuaded to come out of the bedroom and considering that she’s just emptied a gun into a long time friend and acquaintance, she’s remarkably calm and collected. She’s also changed outfits. Apparently she’s too overwrought to say what happened, but once she’s reclined on the couch, with lace hanky in hand, in a school-marmish fashion she explains what led up to the shooting. According to Leslie, Robert was away for the night and she was working on a lace bedspread (a perfect touch since it hints at marital intimacy) when she heard a tap at the door and was surprised to see Hammond there. Noting that she didn’t hear a car drive up, Leslie invites the old friend in and offers him a drink. Not long after that, he declares his romantic and sexual interest in Leslie and proceeds to carry her off to the bedroom in order to rape her. Leslie says he stumbled, she took a gun and shot him.
Even though this is, according to Leslie, her extremely supportive husband and the District Officer, an open and shut case of self-defense, Leslie is arrested as a matter of form and taken to Singapore to await trial. Without exception, the local community and even the jailers supports Leslie’s actions, and she’s seen as a plucky woman who is to be admired, and only the lawyer, Howard Joyce, is quietly troubled by two facets of Leslie’s story: her unwavering attention to detail and the fact that she emptied the gun into Hammond as he lay wounded on the ground. To the viewer, Leslie’s behaviour seems wildly inappropriate given the death of Hammond and the subsequent trial. She vacillates between making light of the charges through flippancy and going to extremes to appear as a graceful hostess.
The other half of the justification equation for the killing of Hammond is that he was considered persona non grata in the British ex-pat community as he married a Chinese woman (Gale Sondergaard). In a rare moment in which Leslie loses emotional control, Mrs. Hammond is described as “horrible” with a face like a “mask.” Hammond, an acknowledged “favourite with the ladies,” also owned a gambling joint--although this isn’t mentioned until Joyce airs this bit of dirt in a conversation with Robert Crosbie.
While Leslie is in jail for less than two weeks awaiting the trial, an extremely important piece of evidence surfaces: a letter that is in the possession of Mrs. Hammond. Joyce, who has only questioned Leslie’s story in the most perfunctory way, is approached via his unctuous Chinese clerk--Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) about the existence of the letter. This letter not only has the power to convict Leslie of murder, but its importance as a piece of evidence reveals Leslie’s true manipulative character. Leslie is in control of almost every scene in the film--from the very beginning when she empties a gun into Hammond’s chest, when she’s surrounded by men who listen to the story of how she bravely fought off Hammond, a dastardly “swine” with rape on his mind, and when she’s confronted by Joyce about the letter’s contents. Bette Davis delivers a stellar performance throughout the film, but she is especially marvelous when confronted by Joyce; it’s always fascinating to see a good actress play a bad liar. During the interview with Joyce, Leslie plays the part of a plucky woman who faces weeks in jail rather as one would accept a sojourn in a health spa. Then when she’s too overwrought by Joyce’s questions, she faints, but she still doesn’t miss a beat, and when she returns to consciousness and pleads for Joyce’s help, she insists her fate rests in Joyce’s hands. When that doesn’t work, she brings in the big guns: Joyce’s relationship with Robert Crosbie.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Leslie and Joyce go to a shop to meet Mrs. Hammond, and an intense and dramatic stare-down takes place between the two women against the backdrop of the shop which is full of trinkets and antiques. This is one of the two scenes in the film in which Leslie is not in control of the people around her. Confronted with Mrs. Hammond against the tinkling of wind chimes, we see a crack in Leslie's haughty manner, and it’s also in this scene that we get the hint that the dead Hammond had relationships with two incredibly steely women capable of the ultimate revenge.
The Letter is based on a short story from the prolific hand of W. Somerset Maugham and was made into a play of the same name. Maugham frequently created characters who, as outsiders, watch and note the intricate social behaviour of others. In The Letter, the observer is lawyer Howard Joyce, a decent man who finds himself torn by conflicting moral obligations. One of Maugham’s favourite themes is to explore the divisions between married couples, and the issue of class differences frequently arises in Maugham’s work. In The Letter, class differences are also racial differences, and so we see that Hammond, by stepping into the Chinese community for a wife, tars himself permanently with the possibilities of all sorts of despicable behaviour and is shut out of so-called ‘decent’ society by his associations.
Leslie is, of course, the main character here. She is tightly wound and in complete control for most of the film, but her inner turmoil is evidenced by the motion of her hands. Once caught by her own lies, she resorts to playing the ‘little woman’ card in order to justify her story, so we see her claiming to be “dreadfully stupid” on the subject of guns (even though we saw her empty one into Hammond), and she also claims to have a poor memory when questioned by Joyce--even though her story hasn’t budged by one detail since the shooting. Leslie’s husband is naïve--another male type to appear in Maugham’s fiction, but in the very beginning of the film when Robert learns that Hammond is shot, he immediately sends a servant for his lawyer. It’s almost as though he knew that Leslie shot Hammond--although at that point no one has told him that. Is he one of those men who find it easier to turn a blind eye to his wife’s affair?
While Leslie maligns Mrs. Hammond as a woman whose face is a mask--a mask of makeup, it’s clear that Leslie’s face is the real mask, and underneath the mask of polite behaviour lurks a woman of incredible passions who’s not at all what she appears. Leslie, in common with the other Europeans in the film, completely underestimates Mrs. Hammond. It’s assumed that Mrs. Hammond is motivated by money, but it’s not until the end of the film that we understand the game she played.
William Wyler also directed Bette Davis in the 1938 film, Jezebel. During the making of the film, they had an affair, but Wyler ended the relationship, and Bette, who was pregnant by Wyler, had an abortion. Wyler planned to use Davis for the role of Leslie from the project’s inception, and Wyler stipulated that he had the “right to withdraw” if Bette Davis declined the role, and given the baggage between them, there was a distinct possibility that she would refuse. Luckily, she accepted, and she’s perfect here as the tightly-wound Mrs. Crosbie whose domestic persona is just the outward repressed manifestation of her true nature. Bette Davis had a long history with this role as she saw The Letter performed on Broadway repeatedly in 1927 when she was a drama student in New York.
Maugham sometimes used real life as fodder for his stories (The Painted Veil for example). The Letter may have been based on the real-life murder case and sensational trial involving Mrs. Mabel Proudlock, the wife of a headmaster in Kuala Lumpur who shot and killed William Crozier Stewart on April 23, 1911. She claimed that he tried to rape her after an unexpected visit made during one of her husband’s absences. She shot Stewart 6 times, and after her story fell apart she was convicted and sentenced to hang. She was eventually pardoned and died in an insane asylum.
While the film version of The Letter is startlingly true to the source material, there are a few notable differences which can be blamed on—or attributed to--Joseph I Breen, the head censor at the Production Code Administration. Breen declared that there was no way he would approve the story as submitted, so revisions had to be made--a spectacular ending was added and Hammond’s Chinese mistress became Hammond’s Chinese wife. Maugham’s ending is marvelously ambiguous.